Can 'Fast & Furious' Survive Paul Walker's Death?

Since the tragic death of actor Paul Walker in a car crash, Universal Pictures has been struggling with how to handle its billion-dollar Fast & Furious franchise. Production on the seventh movie was underway when he died. David Greene talks to reporter Kim Masters, who has been following the story for The Hollywood Reporter. Masters also hosts The Business on member station KCRW.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Hollywood and movie fans were shaken by the recent death of actor Paul Walker. The 40-year-old died in a terrible car crash in Southern California after attending a charity event. Paul Walker was one of the stars of "Fast and Furious," an extremely profitable movie franchise for Universal Pictures. He had already begun shooting film on the seventh film in that series at the time of his death. And that's left a lot of questions about the future of that movie in the franchise itself.

Kim Masters has been the story for The Hollywood Reporter and joins us from NPR West to talk about it. Hey, Kim.

KIM MASTERS: Hey.

GREENE: And, Kim, before move on to any other side of this, we should be clear this is first and foremost a story about the tragic death of young actor and father.

MASTERS: Yes, a very popular guy and the father of a 15-year-old girl. And, as you mentioned, a charitable guy who had a lot of efforts to provide relief to people in disasters. So yes, there is a great deal of grief and there is also an unprecedented business story in Hollywood.

GREENE: Which makes you want to ask you how far along they were in the production of the new "Fast and Furious" movie when he died?

MASTERS: From a production point of view, this was the worst possible moment. They had shot enough of this film with Paul Walker that he's very much in it but they were nowhere near done; they were about halfway through. And, you know, there are other cases, famously, where stars have died when movies are somewhere in the production process. Heath Ledger during "The Dark Knight" movie, for example, and they were able to complete those movies.

But in this case, it's not even just a matter of the fact that they don't have enough footage, but it's the subject matter. This is a franchise about car racing, a franchise with crashes and, of course, Paul Walker died as a passenger in a very fancy sports car - a Porsche GT Carrera - that is very hard to handle even for professionals. So it's right on the subject matter of this franchise. You can't just say let's have an off-screen car wreck or even an on-screen car. It's just too on the nose for what really happened.

GREENE: Yeah, and a lot of questions that we want to try to answer here. And one of them, I mean you just brought up right here. Will anyone want to go see a movie about fast cars and dangerous stunts after all of this?

MASTERS: You know, grimly, David, the executives that I've talked to inside and outside of Universal feel that this will actually increase interest. And I think that's correct. And I also see a lot of outpouring in the studio is responding to it, of fans who do want to see a version of this film with Paul Walker in it, even though they know what happened, obviously.

This is an emotional connection that a lot of fans have to the movie and they are asking for that, and that is something that Universal is now at least attempting to figure out whether they can possibly do it.

GREENE: And can they do it? I mean, you mentioned that this happened at a time when he's some of the movie, they have been able to finish it. What are the options here?

MASTERS: They're just really looking at whether it is salvageable and their options are to complete or abandon. And this is an insurance matter. This would be the largest insurance claim in industry history; most people I talk to agree.

GREENE: So studios actually have insurance policies against things like this happening.

MASTERS: Absolutely, David. Think of the value of this thing. The last film In the "Fast and Furious" franchise grossed over $780 million at the box office worldwide. These are very valuable properties and insurance is a matter of course.

GREENE: And Universal will file in this case.

MASTERS: I would certainly assume so with this much money on the line. If they abandon, they were already into this movie, as I understand it, for about $150 million. And the Fireman's Fund, which insures a film, would be on the hook. As I am told, they've declined to comment for all of that. And the other option is to complete, in which case the insurer would have to pay the difference. And that will also be tens of millions of dollars that it takes to complete this film.

GREENE: A lot of unanswered questions and a really unique story in Hollywood, but above all a really tragic story.

Kim, thanks a lot.

MASTERS: Thank you.

GREENE: Kim Masters hosts The Business on member station KCRW.

And this is NPR News.

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